When I started covering music full time in 2000 for the local newspaper, the part of the beat that I found most challenging was Christian pop. It was huge and growing – a parallel world of record labels, publishers and touring that had its own culture and clearly a lot of talent. But I had to work extra hard to mind what I knew was a bias in my view of the genre. I have trouble with music that starts with a way of thinking and emerges in a way that’s closed off to interpretation. The effusiveness and surrender of gospel music has always moved me. Whereas a lot of the Christian pop in its heyday struck me as an agenda set to verses and choruses, with a sound produced and packaged with such austere pleasantness that it lacked human impact – on my heart anyway.
It also became clear to me that some artists and bands in Christian pop transcended its traps and trappings, building bridges instead of walls. Jars of Clay may have been foremost among them. The quartet of college friends from Granville, IL was and still is widely beloved for its musicianship and songs that invite their fans see themselves and their faith more honestly and insightfully, as opposed to showing them how to think. So when we present Jars of Clay on this week’s roots, it’s with a salute to their independence of spirit and motivation, as well as their beautifully wrought sound. They’ve striven to make each of their 12 albums distinct from the ones before and sought out challenging and interesting collaborators such as King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew.
Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine has always been courageously candid about the band’s self-concept and its ambivalent role in the musical ecosystem that helped them become stars. In a 2014 interview with Songfacts, he critiqued the industry for painting a “one dimensional” picture of life. “As a kid, if I heard a Christian song, I couldn’t relate to those kind of happy clappy ideas that they were putting forth,” he said. “It just didn’t feel human – it wasn’t my experience. And I think it was a disservice to what Jesus was trying to accomplish on earth, to kind of paint the picture that it was devoid of real suffering was a lie.”
So on songs like their 1995 breakout smash hit “Flood,” we hear lyrics including “I’m losing control/Dark sky all around/Can’t feel my feet/Touching the ground.” Nothing happy clappy there. But the real news about Jars is that they’re more than 20 years in to their journey together and fully committed to the road ahead. Their most recent disc, 2013’s Inland, is an organic, rocking and textured project produced by studio visionary Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists). The Nashville/Franklin-based Jars of Clay guys also pursue side projects, including the impressive nonprofit Blood:Water, which works on HIV/AIDS and water supply issues in Africa. They’re walking the walk and singing great songs.
This week’s show is a closer for a short Summer season, and it appears we have a diverse store of songwriting and musicianship ready to join the Jars. Willy Tea Taylor is a newcomer at the ripe age of 39. At least that’s how he presents himself with his beautiful album Knuckleball Prime. The idea is that while pitchers generally prove themselves in their 20s, specialists in the knuckleball tend to blossom later in life. Well, this guy is more than ready for prime time. There are strong streaks of John Prine, Steve Earle and Greg Trooper in his quill pen language and his scuffed leather voice. The album is a sonic wonder thanks to the production of Michael Witcher and the amazing, tasteful musicians he brought on to create the lush soundscape, among them steel man Greg Leisz, guitarist Joe McMahan, banjo master Noam Pikelny and singer Sara Watkins. These fine sidefolk can be hired of course, but few artists have the songs and the emotional intelligence to lift THEM up instead of the other way around. And Willy Tea sure does. His big old beard is likely to be a familiar sight at festivals and fine venues for years to come. We love a late bloomer.
Returning to Roots this week after five years (!) is Australian/Nashvillian Geoff Achison, a commanding blues and rock guitar slinger and songwriting singer. He knocked us out in 2011 when he came to the Loveless Barn doing double duty. He played electric with his friend and ours Randall Bramblett in a fiery soul roots setting. Then he went all acoustic in a solo set that showed off why he’s an instructor at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch for fingerstyle acolytes. Atlanta’s Creative Loafing wrote that: “Achison is who teenage white boys should be dreaming of while doing their best SRV/Hendrix impersonations in bedrooms and garages across America. Achison taps those same well-worn resources but does so with taste and a healthy influx of reggae, funk, soul grooves and jazz inflection.” It’ll be good to see him again. Australia has yet to disappoint at Roots.
And rounding out the scene is songstress Violet Delancey, whose California to Nashville journey would be familiar, but for the stretch in between studying mythology as a graduate student in London. Her love of Dolly and Dylan gets mingled with mythos in the songs on her much-praised debut disc When The Clock Strikes Midnight. Her clear-hearted, classic Americana sound led the Boston Globe to place her alongside Haim and Lake Street Dive in a list of artists and live shows to get excited for in 2016. Besides her own sustaining songs, she does a mean cover of Guy Clark’s “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” And yet she’s clearly going places herself.
Jars of Clay are doing very few dates this year so we’re expecting a sizeable contingent of their loyal fans in Liberty Hall. We expect they’ll come away loving something about somebody else. That’s how it works.